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An Acquired Taste

Well collected but not always well liked, artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze missed his true calling by 200 years

September 15, 2002|LEAH OLLMAN

Tom Cruise as Jean-Baptiste Greuze?

Well, the names do rhyme, offering some pronunciation help, but there's more to the casting possibility than just a trick of the tongue.

The 18th century French artist was arrogant, ambitious, scandalous and brilliant. He led a juicy life--a life, as they say, made for the movies. Which is why, in a conversation about Greuze, curator Edgar Munhall tosses out a big star's name, with a scheming little laugh.

Munhall retired in 1999 as chief curator at the Frick Collection in New York; he's now Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the reference library there. For several decades, he has carried the scholarly torch for Greuze. In 1976, he organized the only comprehensive exhibition of the painter's work since his death. Now he's assembled "Greuze the Draftsman," the first show to focus on the artist's drawings. It opened last week at the J.Paul Getty Museum, with two other Getty-organized exhibitions, one featuring 12 of the artist's paintings (five of them from Southern California collections), and the other presenting drawings by Greuze's contemporaries in France.

Greuze scholarship has been a lonely field, laments Munhall, a dapper man of 69 with a pencil-thin mustache and a short bristle of salt-and-pepper hair. Shortly after the drawings show opened at the Frick in May, he sat for an interview in the Upper East Side mansion-museum, in a stately meeting room that was once Henry Clay Frick's bedroom.

Art historians with a particular interest in Greuze are few, Munhall admits, and general interest in the artist's work has also been limited.

"It's either too sentimental," he says with a sigh, "or we're too cynical. One or the other."

Reacting against the artificiality and sensual excess of the Rococo style, Greuze turned for his subject matter to ordinary people in their everyday lives: a family reading the Bible together around the dinner table, future in-laws arranging a marriage contract. His paintings read like domestic morality tales, populated by devoted children, loving mothers and respected elders. But also their opposite--defiant youths and punishing parents. To a contemporary eye, the work can seem melodramatic and dated, but less so if you consider it in the terms Munhall proposes.

"Basically, his is a narrative art, and the closest parallels are not so much in plays or operas, but in the medium of film," he says. "I think he conceived those dramatic scenes in terms of light and shade and exploration of character just as a filmmaker would."

Not only, then, does Greuze's life lend itself to being told on film (Cruise's availability notwithstanding), but his paintings function like movies, reflecting familiar situations in a staged but accessible format. If Greuze had been born 200 years later, Munhall speculates, he'd have been a great filmmaker. (To reinforce this connection, the Getty has scheduled a film program called "The Magnificent Melodrama" to overlap with the Greuze shows.)

When Munhall mentioned Greuze's filmic approach to a dealer less kindly disposed toward the artist's works, the dealer sneered, comparing them instead to television sitcoms.

There's a certain truth to that as well, Munhall agrees. Starting in 1755, Greuze exhibited regularly at the biennial Salon exhibitions held at the Louvre. The Parisian public attended the shows in large numbers and grew familiar with Greuze's characters, expecting, show after show, to track their lives in his work, as TV viewers might follow the exploits of the Cosby family or the Osbournes. Viewers would assume, for instance, that the young bride in one canvas was the same person as the daughter caring for her aged father in another. "People just ate that up," Munhall says, "and Greuze exploited it for all it was worth."

Greuze was one of only a few artists of his time to exhibit drawings as well as paintings at the Salon. In his drawings, wrote the philosopher and critic Denis Diderot, "Greuze truly shows himself to be a man of genius."

His skill at rendering human form in all of its postures and permutations was extraordinary--and he knew it. When one of his professors noted what seemed like a physical deformity in a drawing of a male nude, Greuze snapped, "Monsieur, you would be happy if you could do one as good."

The Getty's supplementary show of French drawings includes work by Watteau, Fragonard and others, in ink, wash, pastel and colored chalk. Greuze was equally adept at all of them.

Greuze, says Getty drawings curator Lee Hendrix, "mastered everything. As Diderot said, 'This man draws like an angel.' And one of the things that distinguishes him, besides the incredible range, is the new way that he portrayed the lives of everyday people. He would go out into the streets of Paris to look for faces that spoke to him. And he reached into his own personal life in a way that was unprecedented, with a will to get to the truth as he saw it."

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